Children to get jabs against drug addiction
Ministers consider vaccination scheme. Heroin, cocaine and nicotine targeted
By Sophie Goodchild and Steve Bloomfield
Source: The Indipendent
25 July 2004
A radical scheme to vaccinate children against future drug addiction is being considered by ministers, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.
Under the plans, doctors would immunise children at risk of becoming smokers or drug users with an injection. The scheme could operate in a similar way to the current nationwide measles, mumps and rubella vaccination programme.
Childhood immunisation would provide adults with protection from the euphoria that is experienced by users, making drugs such as heroin and cocaine pointless to take. Such vaccinations are being developed by pharmaceutical companies and are due to hit the market within two years.
The Department of Trade and Industry has set up a special project to investigate ways of using new scientific breakthroughs to combat drug and nicotine addiction.
A national anti-drug immunisation scheme is one of the proposals being put forward by the Brain Science, Addiction and Drugs project, an expert committee of scientists appointed by the Government earlier this year.
Professor David Nutt, a leading government drugs adviser who sits on the committee, told the IoS that anti-drug vaccines for children are likely to be among the panel's recommendations when it reports next March.
Professor Nutt, head of psychopharmacology at the University of Bristol and a senior member of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, said: "People could be vaccinated against drugs at birth as you are against measles. You could say cocaine is more dangerous than measles, for example. It is important that there is a debate on this issue. This is a huge topic - addiction and smoking are major causes of premature death."
According to the Government's own figures, the cost of drug addiction - through related crime and health problems - to the economy is £12bn a year. There is a strong incentive for the Government to find new ways to halt spiralling addiction. Last week, the IoS revealed that cocaine use had trebled in Britain with increasing numbers of users switching to highly addictive crack cocaine.
Scientists are already conducting trials for drugs that can be used by doctors to vaccinate against cocaine, heroin and nicotine addiction.
Xenova, the British biotechnology firm, has carried out trials on an anti-cocaine vaccine which showed that 58 per cent of patients remained cocaine-free after three months.
Meanwhile, experts at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, California, have developed a super-virus, harmless to humans, which produces proteins that can block or reduce the effects of cocaine.
The team at Scripps tested the virus on rats by injecting it into their noses twice a day for three days.
On the fourth day, the rats were given a shot of cocaine. The researchers found that cocaine had more effect on the rats not injected with the virus than those that were. Scientists hope that the virus will help stop the cravings experienced by cocaine users for the drug by blocking the pleasure they normally associate with cocaine. This anti-drug medication is expected to be available to users within the next two years in the form of a nasal spray.
Proposals to introduce a national anti-drug vaccination programme have been given a cautious welcome by MPs and experts.
Ian Gibson, head of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, said the Government would have to carry out public consultation. "There is no reason to think this would not be a starter or beneficial," said Dr Gibson, Labour MP for Norwich North. "But ... proper consultation with the public needs to happen well in advance."
David Hinchliffe, chairman of the Commons Health Committee and Labour MP for Wakefield, said: "This could have a huge impact on society in terms of preventing damage to others and dealing with addicts. [But] the ethical perspective does need to be looked at closely."
The National Treatment Agency, which manages drug-addiction programmes, welcomed any new ways of treating addiction but said there was no "magic bullet".